Ride On



I think we all believe we work hard. We’ve heard that if we do, we’ll do well in life. A football coach of mine repeatedly said during conditioning, “The fourth quarter is ours.” He hoped to inspire us to build the stamina to outlast our opponents.

I remember spending hours on school homework trying to do well on vocabulary tests, book reports and math tests. It felt like I had to maintain the pace of a sprinter throughout my education. It makes a person question if it’s worth it. It sure makes it easier to want to stop trying so hard.

One of my best friends, Gary, seemed to be content cruising through schoolwork. He was capable enough to get by without much effort. By the time we graduated from high school, he decided he was done with school.

He got what we considered a great job at the time. Starting wages were very appealing. He was content. That job served him well for many years. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much room for advancement in the company. He watched as his friends started earning more. Those better jobs also came with better conditions: better retirement plans, better health insurance, and more time off. Many of us are now comfortably retired while Gary continues to work. Last time I talked to him he was happy and continued to work hard (though complained about it like we all do or did).

As we all know, life is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s also pretty hard to be motivated by some distant reward that lies so far over the horizon, it’s unimaginable. Training guidance for marathons recommends setting short goals: just to the top of the next visible rise or corner, or timing the next mile.

It’s demoralizing to start a long run thinking only of how far away you are from the finish. Each step out of tens of thousands seems trivial. But completing 10 strides out of 100 is easier to swallow and feels productive. You start an inner monologue: I’m going to keep going until that tree, street sign, or hydrant. It’s easier knowing what you’re aiming for, and rewarding when you achieve each of those smaller goals.

It wasn’t until Air Force Officer Training School that I developed my own strategy. The first six weeks were hard. We struggled at the squadron level to do anything right. We were constantly judged and corrected by some of the upperclassmen who stayed at the squadron level after just completing their first six weeks. I noticed some of their peers had gone up to the group, or wing level, where they were away from the constant vigilance taking place in the squadron. I set my sights on working hard enough to get out of the squadron for my last six weeks. It worked.

Life at group was much more casual. Comparing notes with those still in the squadron, I realized I had earned a much better lifestyle. A little more work early paid great dividends.

Years later I read some advice on careers: work hard for the first six months of any new job. Establish a trajectory with a relatively short burst of effort. That seemed reasonable (and achievable) to me.

It may seem odd, but I’ve learned to apply that same technique to climbing hills on a bike. By pedaling hard before the incline, and “attacking” the first 20% of a climb, the momentum helps climb the remaining 80%.

I’m not sure if it works because momentum makes the last 80% easier or it was just a sneaky way to develop a better overall work ethic. Either way, bringing the carrot a little closer encouraged me to work harder. Maybe it’s just knowing there’s an end in sight. There’s a crest of the hill, a vacation, or retirement that makes the effort more tolerable.

Now that I’ve crested that summit and retired, it’s easy to envision coasting down the hill for my remaining years (which I sure hope are many). But I’d like to believe retirement was just a “false summit” — that horizon on the hill that as you get there, you see the road continue to climb ahead. I’m looking forward to pushing myself to climb other hills; maybe not just to see what’s on the other side, but to appreciate the things that happen with every step.

As we start 2024, I’m resolving to work hard — at least for the first couple of months.

Mark Michel is a recently retired commercial airline pilot and a Key Pen Parks commissioner. He lives in Lakebay.